Are there Rules for Plein Air Painting?

There seem to be many discussions and rules about painting a landscape outside from nature.  Painting “en plein air” is  something  I have been doing for well over 30 years.  I am passionate about working in the field.  Why? because I think it is much easier to take your cues directly from Nature and I enjoy being outside.  Nature is always more inspiring.  I never have to worry about setting up a composition or creating interesting light situations, it is all there for the taking.  I do like working outside and finishing on site but that is not always possible. To maintain a consistent light you probably only have a few hours tops on a sunny day. On an overcast day the light changes are not as dramatic and you will have more time to paint. Is a painting started outside and re-worked in the studio still considered a plein air painting?  I think the answer is yes.  All of the great landscape painters worked outside and also inside their studio on their paintings.

Monet is the quintessential plein air painter.  His famous plein air paintings that were done in succession like the haystacks and cathedrals were painted under very strict conditions because  he was interested in capturing a particular time of day and wanted to replicate that particular kind of light at a particular moment of time.   He did, however, retouch some of his paintings in the studio.  This is documented.  Does this make Monet any less of a plein air painter?  I think not.  

Monet, Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun),oil on canvas, (25 3/4 x 36 1/4) 1891

Constable one of the first plein air painters, definitely had two different “styles” of working.   There are many beautiful plein air paintings.  His loose plein air style which is representative of his “studies” were used for the creation of the larger formal studio paintings. They are about gesture, movement, light, air and a “reaction” to the landscape.   Before he attempted to paint his larger “six-footers” Constable made full-size preliminary sketches in oil paint. I find this to be so odd to re-create the same image from the smaller study, but this practice helped him to work out his compositional ideas on a large scale before working on the final large painting. Not sure why, but  maybe just to remind himself of the feeling he had out of doors.  It is hard to understand fully the process of an artist.

Constable, “A boat passing a lock” 1826
oil on canvas 101.6 (h) x 127.0 (w) cm
Constable, “A Boat Passing a Lock ” oil sketch 55 1/2 × 48 inches

The great painter from Buck’s County Pennsylvania, Edward Redfield not only painted exclusively out on location, but he always finished his paintings in one sitting with no changes in the studio.   Even in the very cold windy days he would still be out there. Sometimes the wind was so strong that he would have to tie his canvas to a tree.  His painting “style” is reflected in his quick broad strokes of alla prima paint.  He liked the challenge of working outside even in inclement weather. It is said he never retouched his work once he finished a session outside

Edward W. Redfield, The Trout Brook, ca. 1916, oil on canvas, H. 50 x W. 56

Yes, there are some painters who prefer not to “rework” their paintings in the studio.  My wonderful painting instructor Raoul Middleman, a great painter from Baltimore and instructor from the Maryland Institute College of Art, whose signature style was always to work outside for his landscapes.  He  advised students not to rework too much in the studio because one might lose some of the freshness of the mark.  He also said in the studio “any color will do”.  I didn’t understand that comment at the time but I think he meant that outside it is easier to reflect directly from the source and the color is determined from what you are looking at which is the reaction to the color and light of nature.  When you come inside to work, the process changes and the color selections may or may not directly reflect the outdoor experience.  Too much changing inside and you might lose the direct impact of the visual stimuli.

Raoul Middleman, “Undertow”
oil on canvas / 46″x 50

I hope we can all agree that the important aspect of any painting is not the process but the result of the process.  The painting itself is the most important thing.  It doesn’t matter at all how that image was arrived at.  There are far too many silly rules being applied to plein air painting.  I think the whole idea is approaching a “fad”.  Fads tend to fade away.   Great works of art last forever.


  1. Got a new book called Constable’s Clouds. His plein air paintings are really nice, less fussy to me than his studio paintings. The book has great detail pix as well as the whole image. It was only about 7 dollars on Amazon!


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